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Diminishing "Dreams" and Early Halloween Tricks

by Andy Dursin

October is here already, which means Halloween is not far away. Next thing you know some kid will be wearing a Scream mask asking for Mounds or Almond Joy on the front porch.

While you'll be able to check out a handful of Halloween goodies on laserdisc and DVD in the upcoming October FSM "Laserphile," I've thrown in a look at the new HALLOWEEN II and III DVDs below some quick reviews of the new Robin Williams fantasy WHAT DREAMS MAY COME and the teen-horror entry URBAN LEGEND. Next time we'll be back with more soundtrack reviews and some TV listings that we hope will be worth your while.

New in Theaters

WHAT DREAMS MAY COME (**): Vincent Ward's latest film is certainly a triumph of visual effects and production design, and yet, like his previous films, what it offers in sheer visceral imagination it lacks in emotion and heart.

Robin Williams plays a doctor for whom tragedy is no stranger--his young children were both killed in a car accident referred to over the movie's opening credits), and when he tries to assist in another auto collision, he loses his own life as well. Eventually, Williams awakens in a Heaven where your thoughts and dreams provide the after-life surroundings; for the doctor who has left his long-suffering wife (Annabella Sciorra) behind, his world is marked by her paintings, which results in gorgeous visual effects of paint dripping off trees and irregularly colored skies filling the screen. While adapting to life after death, Williams is tutored by an angelic type (Cuba Gooding, Jr.) while Sciorra has trouble coping with living without her family, and her eventual course of action forms the quest element that comprises the rest of the story.

Based on a novel by Richard Matheson, WHAT DREAMS MAY COME is sort of like what would have happened to GHOST if its sentiments and preachiness became too maudlin. Ronald Bass's script has little humor, which not surprising given the melancholy tone of this fantasy, and yet there's not enough romance or passion either, something that Matheson's own SOMEWHERE IN TIME (which was adapted from his novel "Bid Time Return") had in spades. The second-half narrative "quest" becomes so reliant on the relationship of Williams and Sciorra that the movie's ultimate failing is clearly its inability to create a couple whom the audience cares about; their montage sequences feel like something out of GHOST (with the spectral Williams leaning over his mournful wife), but brief montage clips do not substitute for scenes that delineate fully developed characters. Furthermore, the dialogue is often painfully preachy and obvious, with Gooding's statements about living life and letting go of reality feeling like they were ripped off a Hallmark card. The ultimate "disguise" of several afterlife characters ultimately comes off as a contrived element in the script as well, being reprised no less than three times over the course of the film. Meanwhile, Williams's performance, with his "serious" and earnest demeanor, will make most folks recall his uncertain dramatic work in HOOK and the gooiest moments of DEAD POETS SOCIETY, while Gooding's act feels more suited to a "Very Special Episode" of TOUCHED BY AN ANGEL than the dense fantasy of this film.

Vincent Ward, whose previous credits include THE NAVIGATOR and MAP OF THE HUMAN HEART, nevertheless brings his penchant for audacious visuals to the film. Looking like a cross between the classic '40s British fantasy STAIRWAY TO HEAVEN and Terry Gilliam's THE ADVENTURES OF BARON MUNCHAUSEN, the scenes of Williams venturing into this netherworld are startling and glorious to behold, especially on the big-screen. The problem, though, is that there's not enough emotion, not nearly enough heart, for a movie that should be built on characters and relationships. It's as if the epic tone of the picture overwhelmed Ward, which shouldn't come as a surprise since visual design, and not narratives, has always been his strong suit. What ultimately happens is that you're stuck watching a movie with pretty pictures, but nothing underneath the surface to lure you into its decidedly human struggles.

Michael Kamen's score is gently romantic and certainly works hard to provide an uplifting element to the proceeding, but ultimately it's an uphill fight since the movie is such a downer. A lot has been made of Ennio Morricone's score having been replaced, but like most rejected scores we've seen recently, the decision to replace Morricone's elegiac score with Kamen's lovely work was less a case of reconceptualizing what the music should be like than an obvious tinkering move on the part of apprehensive executives. As someone at the studio said to me, this is a case where the movie is the problem, not the music. (113 mins, PG-13, *** score by Kamen)

URBAN LEGEND (**1/2): Completely unoriginal teen-horror cash-in on the SCREAM phenomenon, but its lack of pretensions and sense of humor serve it well.

The usual grab-bag of college students find themselves being bumped off by a killer imitating well-known "urban legends," which leads "Cybill"'s Alicia Witt to pin down the culprit from a host of possibilities--is it cub reporter Jared Leto, a shady janitor, or perhaps gas station attendant Brad Dourif (obviously the early favorite in Vegas)? Plenty of chases, ersatz scares, and red herrings later, the killer is revealed to be...nah, I won't spoil the (non)-surprise

Any movie of this kind relies heavily on its humor quotient and directorial style to carry the proceeding, and fortunately URBAN LEGEND has enough in both categories to satisfy most viewers. Witt and Rebecca Gayhart make for a pair of appealing protagonists, while Natasha Gregson Wagner and Danielle Harris (HALLOWEEN 4 and 5--see, I pay attention to these things) play victims and it's always good to see genre vets like Robert Englund and Dourif pop up in supporting parts.

Director Jamie Blanks paces the movie swiftly and adeptly alternates between slasher thrills and a standard mystery "whodunit?" framework, which makes it easy to overlook the standard cliches inherent with this material. The ending is a bit much, and it's as instantly forgettable as last week's Must-See TV comedy line-up, but when compared to the recent deluge of teen horror movies, it's superior to both HALLOWEEN: H20 and I KNOW WHAT YOU DID LAST SUMMER, and manages to be campier than the SCREAM films without being quite as sophomoric. Definitely not a classic, but perhaps a keeper on video. (R, ** score by Christopher Young)

Laserphile Extra: New On DVD

HALLOWEEN II (**1/2) and HALLOWEEN III: SEASON OF THE WITCH (**1/2), $19.96 each from Goodtimes Home Video (***1/2 for presentation): The '80s were infamous for sequels that were made for no other reasons than monetary ones, and indeed, John Carpenter's two sequels to his original 1978 classic were produced mainly for Carpenter and producer Debra Hill to reap in the profits they deserved (but didn't receive) from the first movie. Nevertheless, there's still a lot to like in both pictures, despite their relative insignificance in the genre as a whole.

HALLOWEEN II was produced by Dino DeLaurentiis and distributed by Universal, which resulted in a bigger budget and Carpenter and Hill returning to write and produce this sequel, which begins immediately following the events of the original. With an ugly wig and few lines of dialogue, Jamie Lee Curtis is sent to Haddonfield Hospital while Michael Myers continues to stalk unsuspecting victims in and around the small Illinois town. Donald Pleasence, whose primary function is to continue rehashing the original's storyline (in case anyone forgot) and myths about the masked killer, tries to find Myers while the hospital's gaggle of idiot teens (including LAST STARFIGHTER's Lance Guest) are knocked off one-by-one by The Shape.

Rick Rosenthal took over the directorial reigns from Carpenter, but Carpenter's signature is still all over this movie, from his entirely synthesized score to the eerie camera work of regular collaborator Dean Cundey. Carpenter also played a role in re-editing the film, adding some gross-out inserts of needles penetrating eyeballs and other gratuitous shots that are a stark contrast from the subtle filmmaking of its predecessor. If you have a chance to look at the syndicated TV version of the film (which aired on the "Universal Debut Network" around 1985), you'll have an opportunity to see a movie that was reportedly closer to Rosenthal's original version, which is cut differently, offering less gore, more character development, and a swifter pace (even though it runs the same 92-minute length). Also look fast for Dana Carvey as an assistant who takes orders from a female journalist outside the Myers house.

In trying to establish the "Halloween" brand name as a perennial October franchise, Hill and Carpenter figured they had milked Michael Myers for all his worth, and strove to do something different with the ambitious, Myers-free follow-up, HALLOWEEN III: SEASON OF THE WITCH *(see below). Working from a premise by British sci-fi author Nigel Kneale (who had his name removed from the credits after Carpenter and director Tommy Lee Wallace mucked around with his script), this curiosity stars Tom Atkins as a doctor who stumbles upon a crazy scheme hatched by an Irish toymaker (Dan O'Herilhy) to murder all the nation's kids wearing Silver Shamrock masks on October 31st, via a signal in TV ads that will trigger the masks to crush the little tykes' skulls. Stacey Nelkin, who has the requisite good looks and perky demeanor of any brainless '80s horror heroine, is on-hand to provide what little love interest there is in this creepy but underwhelming sequel, which benefits again from atmospheric Dean Cundey cinematography and a deliberate, groaning synth score from Carpenter and Alan Howarth, which is actually one of their better collaborations.

Part III was poorly received from audiences expecting another Michael Myers stalkfest, while critics didn't care for the movie either (what a shock!). My friend Paul MacLean recalls that when Gene Siskel reviewed the movie on "Sneak Previews," he continuously mentioned and even sang the obnoxious "Silver Shamrock" theme song, which pops up in the movie with its goofy synthesized "London Bridge is Falling Down" altered lyrics more times than I would care to remember! Still, SEASON OF THE WITCH works splendidly on a double-bill with its predecessor, since seeing anything different is preferrable to another tiresome Michael Myers movie (which we nevertheless got in Parts IV, V, VI, and this summer's HALLOWEEN: H20). After reading about Kneale's original concept, the film comes off as a missed opportunity, but at least it tries to put a twist in the series and the film is compelling to watch from start to finish.

Goodtimes has reissued both sequels on DVD, in sparkling new letterboxed transfers that finally enables us to see all of Dean Cundey's terrific Panavision cinematography. Part II was even recorded in Dolby Stereo (a rarity for DeLaurentiis, who refused to splurge for stereo in even CONAN THE BARBARIAN!) and sounds potent, while III is in a punchy, vibrant mono. Neither film boasts trailers or any extras (except for some brief promotional notes), but for $16 a piece (what they retail in many stores), you can't go wrong. Grab some candy corn and gather some friends, and they make for a great double feature.

*NOTE FOR TRIVIA BUFFS-- Either Roger Ebert was asleep in his seats, or perhaps he saw another version of HALLOWEEN III: SEASON OF THE WITCH. Check out his review, where he says HALLOWEEN III "begins at the end of HALLOWEEN II, when the monster was burned up in the hospital parking lot...[except] the monster is forgotten, except for a lab technician who spends the whole movie sifting through his ashes." Anyone remember this, or is it just a case of a critic making a mistake? (Something I am familiar with, of course).

Send all thoughts and comments to Until then, 'Nuff said!

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